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Group files complaint over Bachmann church appearance

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Michele Bachmann
Michele Bachmann speaks to a church group in a video posted on YouTube by a group opposed to her election in the 6th Congressional District race.
YouTube.com

(AP) A watchdog group filed a complaint with the IRS Tuesday against a Minnesota church, claiming the pastor violated the church's tax-exempt status by endorsing GOP congressional candidate Michele Bachmann Saturday night.     

  An official from the church, Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, said Tuesday that the pastor "misunderstood IRS guidelines" and promised it wouldn't happen again. But the Washington watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, said it would not rescind the complaint.

      Bachmann, who is running against Democrat Patty Wetterling in Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, told parishioners at the church on Saturday that God had called on her to run for Congress, according to a video of her appearance posted on YouTube by "Dump Bachmann Blog." She also said that God is now specifically focused on her race.

      When he introduced Bachmann, Pastor Mac Hammond said that the church could not endorse any candidate.

      "But I can tell you, personally, that I'm going to vote for Michele Bachmann," he said to laughter and cheering, "because I've come to know her, what she stands for, and I want her to share her testimony with you tonight."

      Under federal tax law, church officials can legally discuss politics, but to retain tax-exempt status, they cannot endorse candidates or parties.

      According to a fact sheet put out by the IRS to help churches and other charitable organizations maintain their tax-exempt status, "leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization."

      Hammond was not available for an interview Tuesday, but associate pastor Tim Burt said that Hammond thought he was within the rules by saying he was speaking personally.

      "When Pastor Hammond went to introduce her, he did make a comment of publicly endorsing," said Burt, who confirmed the video was accurate. "He didn't knowingly or willingly violate IRS guidelines. He misunderstood the IRS guidelines ... Pastor Hammond agrees that going forward, this is not going to happen again."

      Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, said that wasn't enough.

      "They knew they were skirting the law," she said. "He knew exactly what he was doing. The IRS has been sending out guidelines to churches, to avoid exactly this."

      In its complaint, CREW says that it appears the church "illegally promoted" Bachmann's candidacy, and asked for appropriate fines and penalties, including the revocation of the church's tax-exempt status.

      IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis declined to comment on the complaint, saying federal law prevented the agency from disclosing information about any taxpayer.

      Burt said that the church invited Bachmann to speak not from a political platform, but to discuss the role that God played in her life.

      In her remarks, Bachmann said that she and her husband prayed and fasted for three days after God called upon her to run for Congress.

      Bachmann said they asked God, "Lord, is this what you want? Is this your will?" On the afternoon of the second day, God "made that calling sure," she said.

      Bachmann added that someone would have to be a fool to spend two years running for a seat that lasts just two years.

      "You are now looking at a fool for Christ. This is a fool for Christ," she said to laughter and applause.

      God, she said, "has focused like a laser beam in his reasoning on this race."

      After Bachmann's remarks, Hammond said: "It is important, I said important, that we put men and women of God in office in our government, amen. I don't want any more letters about church and politics don't mix. If that's your opinion then you need to get saved, because the Bible makes it clear that we are to have an effect on the world in which we live."

      Bachmann's appearance and the possible violation of IRS rules were first reported Sunday by the left-leaning blog Minnesota Monitor.

      Neither Bachmann's nor Wetterling's campaign returned phone and e-mail messages Tuesday.